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Book-tober 3: Damocles

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October 3, 2019 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

I want to focus this month on the horror fiction that’s shaped my tastes and interests (despite a long aside about horror films on day one) but I need to take a little detour into fiction written as part of a role playing game to do that.

I was always a fan of post-apocalyptic adventures grieving up. I blame Thundarr the Barbarian and the cover art for Gamma World. One other RPG I enjoyed was The Morrow Project, a more realistic take on the genre, with limited sci-fi elements, a (to my AD&D mind) more realistic combat (you had to keep track of blood loss! Ooooh!), and a giant table of Soviet bombing targets that highlighted to me I was much more likely to be a dead 14 year old in hydrogen bomb shockwave flattened middle school than a laconic survivor in a cool leather jacket fighting mutants on horseback.

I bought all the scenarios I could afford – all interesting reads in their own way – but one of them included an element of in-game narrative that truly, profoundly, chilled me, even more so than, say, a medieval economy in a ruined Chicago or the rules for radiation sickness (where you died without the chance of getting an awesome mutation like “carapace” or “death field generation”.

Damocles (written by H.N. Voss) was a scenario set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The players were a team of cryogenically frozen agents of The Morrow Project, a sort of Azimovian “Foundation” but with guns and light tanks. As per the system a disaster crippled the central base so the outlying teams were never revived until the passage of time starts causing their secret bases’ atomic piles to fail. The core plot of the adventure is investigating a still active secrets US fiction research facility called Damocles.

Spoilers galore ahead.

Damocles was a research facility attempting to develop an AI for military purposes. A fail safe in case human leaders were eliminated in a feared Soviet first strike. The program succeeded and a super intelligent AI built. The facility was equipped with automated defenses including robots – nothing You might not see the Roomba people achieving off there days, mostly self driving ATVs with cameras and guns (and manipulator claws). Getting inside is a strategic puzzle – blast you way in and wreck the place (a potentially unique base of operations) or stealth your way past camera and Morin sensors.

Inside, through a combination of documents and a few human remains you discover the secret of the project. It was not just fictional but the AI, when connected to the US military’s network misinterpreted a system wide drill as a Soviet preemptive strike and the AI initiated the nuclear war that very nearly caused human extinction. If that wasn’t bad enough. The scientists who built it were trapped inside the base by the AI they built because it might need them for repairs AND they all realized the whole catastrophe was their fault.

Room after room there were human corpses – some dead by violence (they tried to disable the AI or escape) or suicide (driven to it by guilt or despair). Eventually all the humans died, save of escapee who managed to jump the outer fence in a blizzard (and who died of exposure soon after). Fun!

Several staffers left suicide notes or journals that made clear what had happened. These were chilling on reading but absolute dynamite in play.

You see, I ran the scenario for my friends. When they got into the base, I had typed up the various journals and notes and gave them out as they were discovered. One player tended to read them aloud for the rest until he just summarized “suicide note to wife who he assumes died when bombshell dropped” or “journal pages of engineer who blames himself”. They were all unsettled. Horrified. this wasn’t a dungeon, it was a tomb fir the human race.

When they finally breached the AI security they had an impassioned debate – what is justice for the AU? Do we “kill” it because of what it did? Is it truly responsible for the war? Can we bring some justice here?

Great gaming.. in large part because of the letters found and the way they made visible the people who had died, their hopes, pride, terror, and guilt. I know this isn’t a work of traditional fiction, but it was truly one the most formative piece of writing I ever encountered.

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